Apple Silicon – an Eventual ARM Up on the Competition?

Macs With Apple Silicon

Apple has officially announced that it will be transitioning from the long-toothed Intel silicon to Apple silicon moving forward. What does this mean? How will it affect pros, consumers, and everyone in-between? Keep reading to get answers to all the above.

But first, some background and techy stuff, the different instruction sets, and most importantly, the X86 vs. Apple silicon architecture.


Instruction Set

A defined set of parameters in which features and constraints are defined, such as IO, memory, physical requirements, data rates, and more. This is fundamentally important since it’s the “walls” in which everything from hardware to software needs to fit to work correctly.


x86

The framework for CPUs from Intel to AMD, IBM, NEC, TI, STM, Fujitsu, OKI, Siemens, Cyrix, Intersil, C&T, NexGen, UMC, and DM&P since the mid-1970s. If you have had a PC in the last 20 years, chances are it’s been x86 based.


ARM

Originally Acorn RISC, the RISC framework concentrates on reducing complexity and overall transistor count to accomplish the same task as in CISC-based systems such as x86. It’s this reason that it has had a long pedigree in the industrial and embedded market, in both SoC and SoM solutions.


SoC (System on Chip)

A means of combining all hardware resources within a single silicon card or card assembly, instead of physically connecting separate hardware to a baseboard via PCIe, SATA, or other interconnect standards. If you’re reading this on a tablet, smartphone, or streaming device, you already own an SoC. But why would Apple want to use an architecture historically used in smartphones, tablets, and smart thermostats? It’s not one reason, as you will read below.

Some inherent benefits to System on Chip architecture (not specifically Apple silicon.)  

  • Smaller package for the same given functionality
  • More throughput = more performance
  • Lower production costs
  • Lower per-unit costs
  • Less complexity = lower failure rate
  • less thermal waste = less heat
  • Drastically lower power consumption (eco-friendly)
  • less latency means potentially better audio/video workflow

SoM (System on Module)

An application-specific computing device designed to offer some feature, or features to an existing architecture. An SoM can be as simple as a mezzanine card, or as exotic as an Apple Afterburner, which can offer massive hardware acceleration and take load away from the CPU to take care of other tasks. Tight integration between PCIe, Compute, and other subsystem resources will allow developers to produce custom Cards, modules, and IO that will dramatically enhance the value and performance of hardware for years to come.


What’s Next?

Now that all sounds swell, but what does that all mean in the real world? Well, simply put, the future of technology is changing, the market is changing, consumers are changing, people care less and less about the hardware and more and more about what they can do with it. Apple understands that the future of technology is not about specs; it’s about having the most integrated overall solution for the job.

It’s this reason among many that Apple has adopted a more modular architecture. Using the ARM architecture will allow for leaps and bounds better hardware integration. Apple no longer has to wait for the other kids in the sandbox to play nice. It has put its silicon down and drawn a line in the sand – pardon my shameless pun.


Apple Development System 

What is available to developers (Apple Developers kit) is effectively a tablet SoC in a Mac mini chassis. This will allow developers to start building tools and software around this new architecture.

For now, anybody on the x86 train will get continued support using the Rosetta Translation Environment. This means that even after developers stop building code for x86, it will still have a growing compatibility layer brought to you by Apple. Developers who have jumped on board will be able to start making changes for the future.

Apple has learned from its past mistakes when it comes to leaving the Pro market. Do I need to bring up the trashcan, or 2019 Mac Pro?

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Apple is back to doing what Apple does best, setting a trend that others will follow. To put it bluntly, we won’t see huge performance gains for a few years as developers get on board with Apple silicon and, more importantly, its new architecture. My head starts spinning at the possibility of what is to come next. A Mac mini with 128 cores? Modular computing on a stick? A Mac Pro with no PCIe limitations? Who knows, but the future looks brighter than ever – and the future is now.



LEAVE A COMMENT


  • The debate about RISC vs. CISC processors has raged for at least 40 years. The last major company to hang its hat on the RISC bandwagon was Sun Microsystems, whose SPARC processors reached their peak in the 1990s. Now, it appears Apple is taking the same step with ARM. Does Apple’s dominant position in the market (Macs being far more popular than Sun products ever were) mean that nothing can go wrong … go wrong?




  • Will the new ARM-based Macs virtualize (not just emulate, which is slower and trouble-prone!) Windows using VMware Fusion or Parallels Desktop?

    Will the new ARM-based Macs run native Windows using Boot Camp in the future?

    I mean, could such two things be technically possible in the future? I think that it all depends on Microsoft releasing a true Windows 64-bit native for ARM. I think that the current version is just 32-bit.

    On the other hand, I think that the main real reasons for Apple to move from Intel x86 to ARM-based Macs is not perfornance per watt, battery life, power, etc, but simply to unify their platforms and gadgets, save money and design and control everything. A huge saving for them. Note that the Mac represents a small percentage of Mac gadgets, after all (much more revenue from iPhone, for instance, and similar from iPad).




    • Microsoft does have a 64-bit ARM version of Windows (ARM64). It can run ARM64 apps natively, but can also run ARM32 and x86 (32-bit) Intel apps. Drivers however, need to be in the ARM64 format, meaning if a vendor does not have such a driver, the device will either not function or function with the base capabilities within its boot ROM (such as a graphics card only displaying at native resolution with no acceleration like they do on the Mac side if drivers aren’t loaded).




  • More sunshine from Apple. But what Apple did best, and better than anyone else, was put the users, ALL the users, in control. That is not going to happen. This is all great—but they are counting on the “gotta have the newest, ‘best,’ thing from Apple, no matter what the cost.” And as long as enough people can afford it, this snob appeal will keep Apple afloat. Yes, it may be better technology, but if all it does is add more golly-gee-whiz-bang entertainment and eye candy, it’s no good at all.




  • You say ARM will perform better, but you offer no examples, possibly because there are none. Apple is taking a leap into the unknown. Whether it’s the future or not remains to be seen. How well will they execute their new chip architecture? Microsoft flopped with it a decade ago. A return to Rosetta will certainly help with the transition, something missing in Catalina. The best way to run older Mac systems in Catalina is with Parallels or VMWare Fusion. I guess if you can afford a new Mac (and all the dongles needed to use it with existing hardware) you can theoretically afford to buy Parallels (and learn how to use it). Sorry, but I remain to be convinced ARM is a good place to run OS X. Of course, computers are so powerful now that running apps in Rosetta won’t overload most systems.